Pau, July 24
Is this a third Tour de France that begins today? At first, the idea may make you smile, but the day after the second rest day, what sprinter doesn’t want to take the idea literally? And what sprinter doesn’t dream, on reading the race bible, of marking the race with his imprint and winning a stage? Remaining for the fast finishers are today’s stage to Lavaur, tomorrow’s at Sarran, Thursday’s at Montluçon, Saturday’s at Evry and, of course, Sunday’s in Paris, the toughest to win.
Five of the six final stages have been laid out to please sprinters, a race that’s been invisible since July 16, the Aix-les-Bains stage. But, in the Tour de France — as the late Jacques Goddet often reminded us — everyone deserves a chance, from the complete athletes to the impish climbers, from the pure sprinters to the powerful attackers.
In other words, and just speaking about recent Tours, this 232.5km stage should allow guys like Dekker and Durand to develop one of their incomparable breakaways. And in the event that such attacks fizzle out before reaching Lavaur, the stage will offer to Steels or Zabel a chance to fight it out (as long as these two buddies are still in the race). Because at this phase of the event, after 15 days on the road, including five in the mountains, the pack’s physical condition is not what it was at the beginning. The “fastest” have given way to the more resilient riders, a fact often emphasized by five-time points winner Zabel when comparing himself to Mario Cipollini, absent this year, who won 12 stages but never finished the Tour.